Occasionally, a release will display a certain synergy between its cover artwork and musical content. In such instances, the interplay between visual and audial components elevates a work beyond the merely good to the uniquely great. Although some philosophical debate about “proper” evaluative criteria remains, criticism’s ultimately subjective foundation allows reviewers to take non-musical merits into consideration. Regarding SABA‘s (Tahj Malik Chandler) sophomore LP ‘CARE FOR ME’, an overall aesthetic leaves one rapt as the Chicago rapper plunges into grim despair.
The loose narrative on ‘CARE FOR ME’ draws focus to John Walt, SABA‘s cousin who passed away following a stabbing last February. While not exactly a concept album, ‘CARE FOR ME’ alludes to Chandler‘s recent loss from the outset. On ‘BUSY / SIRENS’, SABA laments, “I ain’t trust nobody new since 2012 / I ain’t let nobody in / Jesus got killed for our sins / Walter got killed for a coat” while drowsy electronics hint at a sense of emotional fracturing. Following the solidly decent, melancholy ‘BROKEN GIRLS’, which features an unfortunate Pokémon rhyme, Chandler pivots to the industrial grime of ‘LIFE’. Vaguely recalling Kendrick Lamar‘s cadence ‘untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.’ Chandler addresses both his uncle and cousin’s deaths as an addictive bassline drives the standout record.
Opposed to the welcoming atmospheres found throughout Noname‘s ‘Telefone’ (which SABA helped produce), ‘CARE FOR ME’ feels suffocating. Tracks like ‘CALLIGRAPHY’ and ‘GREY’ have the potential to erupt into lush, jazz rap soundscapes, but SABA contains the horns found on the latter to a discernible space. While one would delight in the opportunity to explore the arrangements, the choice to limit the album’s sonic dimensions reflects Chandler‘s withdrawn posture on the album’s tight cover — there’s nowhere listeners can escape. ‘PROM / KING’ recalls the disjointed ‘BUSY / SIRENS’ while slowly unraveling until SABA unleashes a blistering, nearly breathless final half-verse about “Everything goin’ perfect” before an uncredited John Walt croons, “Just another day in the ghetto / Oh, the streets bring sorrow / Can’t get out today with their schedule / I just hope I make it ’til tomorrow.”
Although Chandler strays from Walt‘s passing throughout ‘CARE FOR ME’ to muse about physical and mental battles (‘FIGHTER’), social media ennui (‘LOGOUT’), and family history (‘SMILE’), the album’s two-part climax manages to retain its emotional sharpness. Rather than appearing as a ham-fisted afterthought, Walt‘s passing looms just beyond these excursions, reappearing only when absolutely necessary. SABA‘s confidence to let ‘CARE FOR ME’ gradually develop effectively makes up for the album’s weaker points. While sleepy, mournful progressions “fit” the release’s overall mood, SABA’s more visceral deliveries shine brightest here. Lyrically, Chandler ranges from (modestly) underwhelming and/or cheesy to really damn good; although the oscillation prevents the album from achieving “instant classic” status, the stark cohesiveness among the project’s visual and musical elements utterly captivates. [Admit it, couldn’t you see Vinyl Me, Please giving this a translucent-grey with black splatter treatment?]
‘CARE FOR ME’ is that rare album that delights with a discernible, pervasive aesthetic. Regardless of its visual appeal, though, ‘CARE FOR ME’ musically stands on its own. Another stellar release from the Windy City’s music scene, ‘CARE FOR ME’ deserves a healthy number of spins and reserved contemplation as SABA opens up to listeners and invites them to join him in brooding.
01. Busy (feat. theMIND) / Sirens
02. Broken Girls
05. Fighter (feat. Kaina)
07. Logout (feat. Chance the Rapper)
‘CARE FOR ME’ is out now via Saba Pivot, LLC.